Paris in the mid-1980s was the scene for this session of power players, but the music remains as fresh and vital today as it was when drummer Billy Hart formed the band. Almost a decade earlier, the drummer had assembled a star-studded group for Enchance (Horizon, 1977) and a threesome with Walter Bishop, Jr. called The Trio (Progressive, 1978). Upon his re-emergence as a leader, Hart claimed he was the only sideman, but his work belies that statement. For this band, he chose Sonny Fortune and Billy Harper, two of the most vigorous post bop-cum-free reed players around, and then he added the vibrant pianist Stanley Cowell and super-bassist Reggie Workman. Fireworks were certain to explode in the night sky, and that is exactly what happened on Great Friends.
Fortune and Harper carve solidly into the meat of the eight tunes contributed by the musicians Hart assembled. For example, significant momentum generates from Harper’s easily recognizable compositional style on “Is It Not True Simply Because You Cannot Believe It.” The band gets into a groove with potent soloing built around Harper’s infectious concept of dynamics and intelligent use of recurring theme statements.
Fortune provided two tunes, including “Awakening,” the title piece of his Horizon album from 1975. Both serve as excellent vehicles for Harper and Fortune to forcibly establish the theme lines and then move out with robust rounds of improvisation. The angularity of Harper’s blowing and the volatility of Fortune’s collide repeatedly and marry as the two charge forward.
Stanley Cowell excels on piano. He pounds out modal lines that become an intoxicant for the reed players in their ambitious forward thrust. Cowell has melodic roots at the core of his approach, and he pushes off from that base to accelerate the music. Some of the strongest playing occurs on the tunes by Workman. His innate liberated thought process transfers to his writing, giving “Synapse” and “East Harlem Nostalgia” back-to-back velocity to catapult the music into the free zone where Fortune and Harper are best able to excel.
While the compositions show the musical personality of four contributors, the unity of the band molds each piece into an easily flowing collage of exciting music. Workman plucks assertively while developing mini-compositions of his own, Cowell stokes the furnace on this rapidly moving train, and Harper and Fortune burn brightly with distinctive styles.
The driving force of Great Friends, however, remains the domain of Hart. The dauntless percussionist systematically asserts the direction without ever being obvious. He mixes it up with a plethora of rhythmic patterns to become the unsung hero of the session. Hart simply goes about business, adding counter currents and unexpected twists that become the foundation of the songs. He is the glue for the set and the inspiration for each soloist, rendering the complexity of what he pounds out integral to the completed picture.
The output of this band has structural boundaries in today’s terms, but the players continually nudge the extreme perimeters. This program has all the ingredients required for strong, hard- pounding music.
Personnel: Sonny Fortune-alto saxophone; Billy Harper-tenor saxophone; Stanley Cowell-piano; Reggie
Workman-bass; Billy Hart-drums. Recorded: July 7, 1986, Paris, France.